US Army soldier SSG Norma Gonzales of 426 Civil Affairs Battalion reads a magazine while waiting to be ferried by a helicopter to different US military bases in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, in this October 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/Files
The Pentagon has lifted its ban on women in front-line combat
roles in a historic step toward gender equality in US armed
forces after 11 years of nonstop war.
The decision came with important caveats, and sweeping change
will not happen overnight for women, nearly 300,000 of whom
have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
But the move by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, with the
support of President Barack Obama, could open 237,000
positions to women in America's armed forces and an expand
opportunities for career advancement.
"The department's goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure
that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most
capable people, regardless of gender," Panetta said in a
A senior defense official said Panetta's goal "is to open
everything" to women. Service chiefs will have to ask for
exceptions to keep some positions closed.
Panetta, who is to address a Pentagon news conference on
Thursday (local time), made the decision after the Joint
Chiefs of Staff concluded it was time to integrate women "to
the maximum extent possible," according to a statement.
Gender-neutral performance standards will be developed for
all the new jobs opening to women, officials said. But
whether that means the physical requirements become more or
less rigorous remains to be seen, they added, cautioning that
they would depend on the actual demands of the position.
An example of a physically demanding job that may be out of
reach of women without significant upper body strength could
be in front-line tanks, where soldiers need to lift and load
heavy ammunition in confined spaces using mainly their arms.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the
changes would be gradual. The service chiefs have until May
15 to offer plans to implement the new policy by Jan. 1,
"The secretary understands with a change of this magnitude it
does take some time," the official said.
The move topples another societal barrier in the US armed
forces, after the Pentagon in 2011 scrapped its "Don't Ask,
Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a suit in
November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban on
women in combat, applauded the decision, which rescinds a
1994 policy preventing women from serving in small front-line
For many women service members, the move is belated
acknowledgement of the realities of the past decade of war,
in which there were often no clearly defined front lines.
Eighty-four women have been killed in hostile action in Iraq
and Afghanistan and nearly 1,000 wounded.
Women serve in combat roles for the armed forces of a few
developed nations, including Canada and Israel, but officials
say demand from women for such jobs in NATO nations is very
low. In 2010, Britain decided after a review that it would
not change rules excluding women from infantry or combat
"I feel like it's beyond time," said Staff Sergeant Tiffany
Evans, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
The United States is drawing down its some 66,000 remaining
forces from Afghanistan through the end of 2014, when only a
small residual force is expected to remain. It is possible
that some women may see themselves in new combat roles before
that withdrawal is complete.
"I don't think we can exclude that possibility," one senior
defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.